The cause of our crises

This is the first of a three-part series of blogs looking at the origins of our current crises and the way out of them. 

Due to the values of our society, the destructive downward spiral will not stop until we attack the root cause of the problem, and that is because our civilisation has lost its Spiritual Direction. For the crises to reverse course, we need to regain Spiritual Direction.

How do I know that? Allow me to share my own journey of spiritual evolution.

Nearly twenty years ago, I was living in circumstances that most people would consider desirable, with all the exterior signs of success. Yet, I felt something was missing. Thirty years in banking and finance have taken its toll. I was stressed, angry, arrogant, and full of desires. I felt ‘empty’ inside. I was looking for ‘meaning’, and started meditation in a disciplined, regular way. I only read spiritual books. Slowly but surely, my hunger changed my consciousness. I realised why I felt empty inside, and why the world of banking and finance was so soul-destroying.

It’s because instead of valuing people and personal relationships (like I used to do as a young person), I was the prisoner of a system, built on greed, that made me value profit, and view people (and everything else for that matter: nature, capital) as mere objects to be exploited in order to achieve my own benefits.

The business that I co-headed employed one hundred associates at its peak. Incidentally, among the children of these people, today only three work in banking or Private Equity. I guess the others look at their parents’ lifestyle or they see the disconnect between what their elders say and what they do, and they decide “No, I don’t want that. I don’t want hypocrisy.”

From exploring other spiritual traditions, I realise that the teachings of the Vedanta, of Lao Tzu, of the Buddha, of Jesus, of the Quran, is a teaching of being and a warning against having. To be is to be free from having. Society should be based on the principle that the meaning of life is in the being, while the modern world is based on the opposite presumption, that the meaning of life is in the having.

We have lost direction because for four hundred years, having has stifled being. We have lost direction because there is a fundamental contradiction between human values and those of the materialistic, consumer society. So long as an economy is based on the pursuit of profit and competition, and the mutual exploitation that automatically results from it, it is irreconcilable with human dignity.

Satish Kumar, a former Jain monk, made this amazing statement: “The urgent challenge facing the world is not to give more to the poor, but to take less from the poor.” From a behavioural point of view, if you were to remember just one thing from my sharing today, it is this quote.

What does Satish mean? Jains originated from India over 2500 years ago. For them, there is a moral imperative to live within reasonable limits. Their response to consumerism is to reduce what we consider to be our need. For Jains, to take more than one’s essential requirements means depriving other people and is theft; to use up finite resources at a greater rate than they can be replenished is stealing from future generations. The true objective of self-restraint is to maintain a healthy balance between material needs and spiritual needs.

This is what Satish Kumar means. The urgent challenge facing the world is to stop ‘stealing’. To live simply so that others may live. The late Bishop Desmond Tutu said the same thing in a different way: “There comes a point when we need to just stop pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out who pushed them in.”

The next blog explains how a shift in mindset across a critical mass of society can lead to transformative change. 

In 2018, Nguyễn Phương Lam retired as Co-founder and Co-head of the Private Equity business of Capital Group, and CEO of Capital International’s Singapore branch. Lam is involved (as an advocate, donor, or mentor) with numerous local civil society organisations and global NGO’s, including, and

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